Is the Pope Infallible in Matters of Doctrine and Morals?-Part 2

By: Dr. John Ankerberg, Dr. John Weldon; ©2004
The way in which the doctrine of papal infallibility was formulated creates serious problems for this issue—as does the track record of popes down through history.

Unfortunately, the story behind papal infallibility is less well known than the doctrine itself. Writing in The Trinity Review for July, 1992, John W. Robbins discusses what went on behind the scenes at the first Vatican Council:

The Vatican Council itself was a travesty. The 700,000 residents of the Roman states were represented by 62 bishops, constituting half to two-thirds of every committee. The 1,700,000 Polish Catholics were represented by one bishop, who was not chosen for a single commission; four Neopolitan and Sicilian bishops outvoted the bishops of Paris, Cologne and Chambray, representing 4,700,000 Catholics.
Not to take any chances at losing, however, the papacy demanded that debates be conducted in Latin, condemning, writes Himmelfarb, nine-tenths of the bishops to silence and the rest to confusion. The pope refused the bishops permission to examine the stenographic reports of their own speeches; he prohibited meetings of twenty or more bishops outside the council; he strictly censored literature, imprisoned and threatened recalcitrant bishops, and continued the time-honored tradition of the Roman post office opening letters suspected of heresies or error. It was declared to be a mortal sin to communicate anything that occurred in the Council. But all was not threats. The pope used promises of titles, positions and benefices to aid his cause as well: Fifteen cardinal’s hats were dangled before wavering bishops.
Despite these attempts to rig the Council, opposition to the notion of papal infallibility continued. Further steps were necessary. Debate was cut off, minority speakers interrupted, and the rules of order and debate were skewed to favor those who favored infallibility. The final text was rushed to the Council without any debate at all.[1]

A thorough discussion of the Vatican I Council can be found in August Bernard Hasler’s How the Pope Became Infallible. Hasler served for five years in the Vatican Secretariat for Christian Unity where he was given access to the Vatican Archives. There he uncovered crucial docu­ments relating to the Council that had never been studied before. As a result of his research, this learned Catholic scholar concluded:

It is becoming increasingly obvious, in fact, that the dogma of papal infallibility has no basis either in the Bible or the history of the Church during the first millennium. If, however, the First Vatican Council was not free, then neither was it ecumenical. And in that case its decrees have no claim to validity. So the way is clear to revise this Council and, at the same time, to escape from a situation which both history and theology find more and more indefensible. Is this asking too much of the Church? Can it ever admit that a Council erred, that an 1870 Vatican I made the wrong decision?[2]

Given the fact that it was principally non-theological factors that were involved in the first Vatican Council’s declaration of papal infallibility,[3] it is not surprising that the Catholic Church had opened for itself a rather robust can of worms.[4]

The simple truth is that the doctrine of papal infallibility is easily disproven, even granting that most papal statements are not made under the strictures of the 1870 ex cathedra definition. The point is that papal pronouncements in general (ex cathedra or not) uphold the doctrinal position of Catholicism. From a biblical perspective, then, errors of doctrine exist because ex cathedra pronouncements by definition uphold Catholic doctrine—doctrine that is not biblical. If, as Catholics maintain, the pope speaks “from a tradition of right teaching,” i.e., Roman Catholi­cism,[5] then from an Evangelical perspective the issue of papal infallibility is settled. The popes cannot possibly be infallible at any point in which they deny Scripture.

To our knowledge, not once has a pope publicly renounced Catholic teaching. This means that throughout papal history there are hundreds of errors—whether or not they are given ex cathedra is irrelevant.

If, on the average, a pope were to give two ex cathedra decrees in his life and 500 other communications, written or verbal, that supported unbiblical Catholic beliefs, why should the issue of an ex cathedra pronouncement even be relevant to the issue of papal authority?

Indeed, in teaching ex cathedra, popes have 1) consistently upheld unbiblical Catholic doc­trine and 2) misinterpreted Scripture. So it is a bit difficult to consider them infallible in matters of doctrine—and perhaps in morals as well.

Nevertheless, papal pronouncements have clearly been false. These errors often illustrate what Kung emphasizes when he says,

The errors of the ecclesiastical teaching office in every generation have been numerous and indisputable…. And yet the teaching office constantly found it difficult to admit these errors frankly and honestly…. For a long time, too, Catholic theologians in their works on apologetics, in the service of the teaching office, were able very successfully to ward off any questioning of infallibility by the use of a basically simple recipe: either it was not an error, or—when at last and finally an error could no longer be denied, reinterpreted, rendered innocuous or belittled—it was not an infallible decision.[6]

Throughout the history of the Christian Church there have been a number of heretical or semi-heretical teachings that the Church has opposed. Yet, popes have sometimes been known to side with these false or heretical teachings.

For example, “Pope” Victor (192) first approved of Montanism and then condemned it; Marcellinus (296-303) was possibly an apostate idolater; in 358 Pope Liberius (352-366) con­demned Athanasius and sided with the Arians who denied Christ’s deity. Pope Zosimus (417- 418) first sided with the Pelagians and later condemned them. Pope Honorius I (625-638) first sided with the Monothelites.

In a confusing historical case, Pope Vigilius (537-555) at first refused to condemn the her­esies of the Monophysites and Nestorians. Later he both condemned them and upheld ortho­doxy. But then he retracted his condemnation. This kind of vacillation continued because the pope was apparently uncertain as to how he should best handle the particular political situation he found himself in. Here at least, could not a genuine infallible pronouncement have saved a great deal of anguish and confusion?[7]

If Pope Liberius accepted in the Arian creed, how could he possibly be considered the recipi­ent of divine guidance? Why was Pope Honorius I condemned as a heretic by a) the Sixth General Council in 681 A.D. and b) several subsequent popes?[8] How did Pope Sixtus V (1585- 1590) produce the error-ridden 1590 edition of the Vulgate?[9] How did Pope Paul V (1605-1621) and Pope Urban VIII (1623-1644) condemn the true scientific theories of Galileo?[10] Why did the Church wait 300 years to correct the error?

In addition, popes have sometimes contradicted one another. Pope Hadrian II (867-872) declared civil marriages valid while Pope Pius VII (1800-1823) declared them invalid.[11] Pope Eugenius IV (1431-1477) condemned Joan of Ark to be burned as a witch while Pope Benedict XV (1914-1922) declared her a saint in 1919. Pope Clement XIV (1769-1774) suppressed the order of the Jesuits on July 21, 1773 while Pope Pius VII (1800-1823) restored them on August 7, 1814.[12]

Even Vatican II’s declaration on religious freedom conflicts with the condemnation of religious freedom in Pope Gregory XVI’s encyclical Mirari vos (1832). Elsewhere, Vatican II is also in conflict with the earlier doctrine that salvation outside the church was not possible.

Catholic theologian Hans Kung is only one dissenting voice who has pointed out such prob­lems for years—to no effect. For example, in Kung in Conflict, a compendium of responses to Kung with rejoiners, we read “Kung, like so many Catholics, was deeply disturbed by what he perceived to be a lack of sincerity and truthfulness in dealing with changes in doctrines and truth claims. It was felt by many to be less than truthful to describe the shift from Gregory XVI’s sol­emn condemnation of freedom of conscience as ‘false, absurd madness…’ in Mirari vos (1832) to Vatican II’s Declaration on Religious Freedom….[13]

But popes have even contradicted one another on the recommendation or condemnation of Bible reading![14]

But should anyone be surprised by all this? To date, the Catholic Church claims for itself a whopping 263 popes, including many “anti-popes” or false claimants.[15] Since the Bible nowhere tells us that popes can be infallible (it never even mentions popes or their office), why should anyone assume they are infallible—solely because a Church conference was convened by a 19th century pope who literally forced acceptance of the doctrine for personal reasons? Cer­tainly, if popes are not infallible saints, but fallible men like the rest of us, how reasonable is it to assume that in 2,000 years not one of these sometimes great but certainly fallible men have ever made a single error when speaking “ex cathedra?”

Indeed, papal infallibility was never a credible doctrine. As Carson points out, the doctrine of an infallible pope and/or church reasonably assumes that the infallible guide will first of all be clearly recognizable; second, that this guide will act with reasonable promptitude in discerning truth from error; and third, that this guide can never be responsible for leading the Church into error.[16] Historically, none of this has been true.

In fact, the history of Catholicism “is strewn with a line of anti-popes who have laid claim to the See of Rome, and so to the allegiance of the faithful.”[17]Thus, it would seem that the infal­lible guide has not always been clearly recognizable to the faithful.

Second, the popes have not acted in a reasonable amount of time when a given historical situation necessitated a prompt answer. “The facts of history speak for themselves. They reveal his extreme reluctance to commit himself; they suggest that considerations of expediency rather than a conviction of his own infallibility were the dominant factors.”[18]

Third, a single error by a pope speaking ex cathedra will once and for all undermine the entire doctrine of papal infallibility. But throughout history the number of such errors, especially if we include Catholic doctrine, is considerable. Catholics may respond by saying that in certain cases the pope was not speaking ex cathedra. Nevertheless, when the pronouncement is is­sued with full authority, when the Church at large accepts it as a true papal pronouncement, it becomes difficult to deny that this is an apparent rationalization.[19]

But if the pope really is to be infallible in matters of faith and morals—and yet chose not to speak “ex cathedra” when, in fact, he did make a doctrinal or moral error—one wonders how his judgment can be considered trustworthy at other points?

Further, on what unambiguous basis is an “ex cathedra” pronouncement officially identified? Do popes have to verbally exclaim they are issuing an “ex cathedra pronouncement” for it to be considered infallible? If not, how is an infallible announcement infallibly determined?[20]

Finally, even to accept the doctrine of papal infallibility is based on a principle Rome itself condemns:

We ask, therefore, how it is that a man comes to accept the infallibility of the Pope. Surely it is by an act of private judgment. Rome virtually admits this by her very approach. Here, for example, is the inquirer meeting the priest. The claims of Rome are presented, and the arguments are mustered. If he decides to accept these and submit, it is because he considers the arguments valid. But this is as much an act of private judgment as an attempt by a Protestant to come to a reasoned conclusion on any biblical issue. So

we are really no further forward. The appeal to the infallibility of the Church does deliver from the necessity of private judgment: rather, its very acceptance is derived from the same source.[21]

In conclusion, it is impossible to accept that Roman Catholic popes have been granted infalli­bility in matters of faith or doctrine.

But, in good conscience, neither can we necessarily accept the Roman Catholic claim of infallibility in morals. As the eminent German and English historian John E. Dalberg (Lord Acton) points out, “A man is not honest who accepts all the papal decisions in questions of morality, for they have often been distinctly immoral….”[22] As Hudson comments, “Beside these historical examples [of errors], which could be expanded to fill many pages, what of the gross wickedness, intrigues and immoralities of many of the popes?”[23]

Indeed, many of these are “described with surprising frankness” in a book displaying the Imprimatur of Cardinal Spellman—Glen D. Kirtler’s, The Papal Princes.[24]



  1. John W. Robbins, “Action on the Papacy,” The Trinity Review, July, 1992, p. 3.
  2. August Bernard Hasler, How the Pope Became Infallible: Pius IX and the Politics of Persuasion (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1981), p. 310.
  3. Paul G. Schrotenboer, ed., Roman Catholicism: A Contemporary Evangelical Perspective (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1980), pp. 52-53; Hans Kung, Justification: The Doctrine of Karl Barth and a Catholic Reflection (Philadel­phia: Westminster, 1981), pp. 78-84.
  4. Schrotenboer, pp. 52-53.
  5. Karl Keating, Catholicism and Fundamentalism, The Attack on “Romanism” by “Bible Christians” (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 1988), p. 223.
  6. Hans Kung, Infallible? An Inquiry (Garden City, NY: Image Books, 1972), p. 30.
  7. cf., Walter Martin, The Roman Catholic Church in History (Livingston, NJ: Christian Research Institute, Inc., 1960), pp. 17-21 and Harold O. J. Brown, Heresies (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1940), pp. 66, 186, 190, 207.
  8. Kung, Infallible? An Inquiry, p. 30.
  9. H. M. Carson, Dawn or Twilight? A Study of Contemporary Roman Catholicism (Leicester, England: InterVarsity Press, 1986), p. 83.
  10. Ibid., pp. 84-85.
  11. Henry T. Hudson, Papal Power (Welwyn, Hertfordshire, England: Evangelical Press, 1981), p. 112.
  12. Martin, pp. 17-21.
  13. Leonard Swidler, ed., Kung in Conflict (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1981), p. 33.
  14. Hudson, p. 112; cf., the letter from Pope Pius VI to the Archbishop of Florence dated April 1778 on the title page of the Roman Catholic English Bible; cf., the Council of Toulon, 1239; the Council of Trent’s index of prohibited books, 4th rule; the encyclical letter of Pope Leo XII May 3, 1824, etc., as cited in Dreyer and Weller, Roman Catholicism in the Light of Scripture, (Chicago: Moody Press, 1960), pp. 13-16. (References for papal infallibility include Carson, pp. 80-85; cf., Robert C. Broderick, ed., The Catholic Encyclopedia, rev. and updated (NY: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1987), pp. 479-482 for a list, Richard Knolls, Roman Catholicism: Issues and Evi­dences, from Chattanooga, TN, Ankerberg Theological Research Institute, 1990; Walter Martin, The Roman Catholic Church in History, pp. 17-20).
  15. Broderick, ed., p. 482.
  16. Carson, p. 72.
  17. Ibid., p. 73.
  18. Ibid., p. 75.
  19. Ibid., p. 80.
  20. Cf., Kung, Infallible? An Inquiry, pp. 58-60; Brown, p. 190.
  21. Carson, p. 53.
  22. Cited by John W. Robbins, “Acton on the Papacy,” The Trinity Review, July, 1992, p. 3, in a review of Gertrude Hummelfarb’s Lord Acton: A Study in Conscience and Politics (University of Chicago, 1952) and Robert Schuettinger, Lord Acton: Historian of Liberty (LaSalle, IL: Open Court, 1976.)
  23. Hudson, p. 113.
  24. Glen D. Kittler, The Papal Princes (New York: Funk & Wagnalls, 1960).


Leave a Comment